This spring at The LP, we’re exploring creative place-keeping and radical mapping in Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and other communities of color. How can our communities creatively use practices like cultural asset mapping, cartography, and archiving to invest in and make meaning of our localities? How can these concepts and methods democratize the knowing, keeping, and making of people and place; help us write our own histories; and preserve space and culture?
We reached out to Emma Osore of BlackSpace—a national collective of Black urbanists comprising planners, architects, artists, and designers—to share the group’s approach to the creation and preservation of Black environments.
To learn more about creative place-keeping, join us April 15 and 16 for Radical Mapping: Making Meaning in Our Communities and explore our Radical Mapping Resource Guide.
Reimagining Blackness and Civic Design
by Emma Osore
Black spaces can take an infinite number of forms. Black spaces are expansive—they can quickly move from tiny apartment to global phenomena. Black spaces are adaptive and can be made anywhere we show up as ourselves. Black spaces are layered, and when stacked just right, can enable our fullest expression and freedom.
We, as Black urbanists, are on a mission to create and protect the many spaces of Black significance in the built environment and the liberation and leadership of urbanists. We do this work in the face of our “Afro-actual” reality of public systems and urban planning fields that actively design for anti-Blackness. Where at its worst, redlining, highways through neighborhoods, exclusionary zoning, and state-sanctioned public violence are design interventions targeted specifically towards Black and marginalized people and communities in the US and globally. At best, within these fields, engagement with spaces in the margins is based in what is most lacking rather than in imaginative and creative possibilities rooted in what is working. BlackSpace is a part of a necessary movement to manifest Black futures. We started in NYC, and gathering around the word “urbanism / urbanists” is our way of breaking down silos to bring together planners, architects, artists, and designers—people who are passionate about the work of public systems and urban infrastructures. Through transdisciplinary community design and thought leadership, we have evolved into a national collective of about 60 people in 5 cities who are subverting urbanist fields and making design decisions centered on the needs and desires of Black and marginalized people, spaces, and cultures.
We first tune in to the assets of ourselves and the Black spaces around us. We then begin to listen to and learn from each other’s stories.
In our thought leadership, we share workshops and publish content, including the BlackSpace Manifesto, to advance creative approaches to acknowledging, affirming, and amplifying Black lives in public space, and to more freely express ourselves as Black urbanists.
In our community design, our practice of building with each other is also the way BlackSpace co-designs with partners. We first tune in to the assets of ourselves and the Black spaces around us. We then begin to listen to and learn from each other’s stories—in conversation over brunch, or through conversations with people at existing neighborhood gatherings. We then make a plan to gather and take some action together, whether it be a design sprint inside our organization to stretch our imagination, or a public activation that adds value and incorporates the desires of Black people. Through listening to each other’s memories and lived experiences, we are able to map the Black heritage of the built environment in a way that includes ephemeral, online, and tangible artifacts of the expansiveness of Black spaces. By listening for patterns and understanding the layering of our heritage and culture, we are able to identify networks and nodes of organizations, people, celebrations, and customs to advocate for and invest in together.
Black and white illustration of people biking, gardening, and relaxing on top of a city grid. Art by Julia Mata.
Of NYC’s 65 predominantly Black neighborhoods and over 1,700 Black urbanists, we have gathered urbanists consistently for the past five years to challenge and support each other at small apartment brunches and more recently across our network online. We have also worked in Brownsville, Brooklyn and in Boston, Massachusetts. Alongside community partners, we listened to people’s stories of their local space, prototyped activities that enlivened programming during existing events, mapped the stories tangibly, and co-designed and co-produced together to activate responsive events and structures.
In Brownsville, this manifested as an intergenerational pop-up storytelling tour, hosted by the local business improvement district’s annual harvest festival event, and featuring Brownsville’s Power in the Pen writers seated in 5 local artist-designed stations that reflected Black and neighborhood culture. Each young person received a story passport and traveled to the different stations as the writers read their published stories to 60 children and families, who, for completing the tour, all received candy bags made by the local car club—an annual Halloween tradition they adapted to work in collaboration.
Leveraging the modalities of design; love; creativity; and joyful, imaginative gathering opens the door to a world where we can advocate for and co-invest in the spaces that actually hold our expansiveness and honor our existence in the built environment.
In Boston, we took our approach and worked with a house and community for young women and non-binary people of color pursuing careers in tech in a house re-design process. We co-designed modular interior spaces to reflect the feelings of comfort and culture—like built-in niches in the foyer, where each new resident could publicly share an object of importance from their life’s story and see it have a home in collection with other residents’ stories. Or a modular seating arrangement in the dining room to reflect the residents’ African diasporic diversity—with some built-in options lower to the floor, seated at a table, or a hybrid of both.
Black and white illustration of a person sketching at a table with a city growing out of it. Text around the person reads: “Move at the speed of trust,” a quote by adrienne maree brown. Art by Julia Mata.
Throughout these processes, we incorporate reflection. Inside our collective, we bring our national network together for bi-annual project critiques and celebrations and make consensus-based business decisions. In neighborhood projects, we ensure our project planning includes the necessary room to pivot a project completely based on what we learn along the way, and to correct inevitable misunderstandings. In Brownsville, for example, we did not go in with expressed design outcomes outside of an interest in Black neighborhood cultural conservation. Instead, starting with listening and seeing where the process led, we had to incorporate some milestones and ground truth sessions to hold ourselves accountable. We called these moments synthesis sessions and prototyping; borrowing from the work of human-centered design. Making the milestones to share and show our work back to the public meant that we could stress test our learning in real time. With a tangible way to engage, people shared the strengths and weaknesses of how they perceived culture in the neighborhood, graciously corrected our spellings of important places, and opened us up to be checked on our purpose and privilege. This ultimately helped BlackSpace members to collaborate with the most aligned partners, like the Brownsville Heritage House and the Youth Design Center; adjust our project scope to be more clearly focused on intangible Black Brownsville history; and deepen our approach to thoughtful community design practice—resulting in the BlackSpace Manifesto.
In my own operational and creative leadership of BlackSpace, I hope to honor and contribute meaningfully to the present day and past legacy of Black space-making—and I especially want to to hold up the (in)visible blueprints laid for us through the work of Black, queer, womxn thinkers, builders, and organizers like Audre Lorde, Wangari Maathai, Andrea Roberts, Majora Carter, Toni Morrison, adrienne maree brown, and the Combahee River Women’s Collective. Through my work in BlackSpace, I’ve learned that as I offer abundance to the collective, I get it back in return. I too feel unstifled, more creatively expressed, and can practice radical lessons I’ve adopted of graceful resistance to the status quo, of building platforms to stand in our collective power, and creating sustainable solutions for our problems. Leveraging the modalities of design; love; creativity; and joyful, imaginative gathering opens the door to a world where we can advocate for and co-invest in the spaces that actually hold our expansiveness and honor our existence in the built environment. In this interconnected community building practice, we create the space and time to not only heal collectively from the injustices of urban planning and design, but also build upon the legacy of Black space-making. Black spaces have always been adaptable, expansive, and layered, and we believe that within our community is the freedom and springboard towards our collective future.
Emma Osore (she/her/hers) is a creative community builder, participatory designer, and social entrepreneur. In her focus on people-centered systems change, she supports emerging communities of anti-disciplinary creatives that transform culture.
She was the first Director of Community at the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s creative business incubator, NEW INC – resulting in its first majority-BIPOC membership, launched and led a new Equity in Arts Leadership portfolio, a half million dollar investment in BIPOC arts advocates at Americans for the Arts. She also co-founded BlackSpace where she led and now as its first Co-Managing Director – bringing thoughtfulness and imagination to the operational leadership of a growing collective.
She crafts community using techniques found in quilting, community gardening, corporate operations, immigrant economic organizing, Black feminist collectives, and her own mixed media art practice. Her work on space-making through culture, values, and heritage has been published by Columbia University Press and Deem Journal and shared with national audiences at Harvard University, HBO, Municipal Arts Society, Pratt University, and NYU. Emma earned her undergraduate degree in Urban and Regional Studies at Cornell University and her Master’s in Public Administration at Baruch College’s Marxe School for International and Public Affairs where she was a National Urban Fellow.